Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

Biblical legend has it that the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus about this time 2,000 years ago. We're all familiar with gold, the treasure of medieval alchemists, used more recently in dentistry and as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. But what about the other two? In ancient times, both were highly valued for their distinct fragrances and healing qualities. According to the American Botanical Council and Herbs magazine, the two are rather similar in origin, both being natural oleo-gum-resins harvested from trees native to northeast Africa and Arabia. Each, however, has unique qualities and historical uses.

Frankincense is a fragrance that's balsamic, dry, resinous, and slightly green, with a diffusive note of unripe apple peel. Its name comes from "frank" (bold) and "incense" (odor provider), and it represented divinity in the holy gift trilogy. (Gold stood for loyalty.) The ancients used it in religious ceremonies as an incense, in embalming, and in cosmetics, and considered it to be more precious than gold. Now we include it in floral and violet perfumes, citrus colognes, spice blends, and male fragrances.

Myrrh's fragrance smells sweet, spicy, sharp, and pungent when fresh, and it represented suffering in the holy gift trio. It was used in ancient times for medical purposes like indigestion, mouth ulcers, and congestion, as well as in salves for treating wounds. Widely used today in aromatherapy, myrrh also appears in perfumes, mouthwashes, and toothpastes for its clean, acid, aromatic flavor that blends well with mint, clove, and wintergreen.

Frankincense and Myrrh are two of the most commonly recognized plant names throughout the world. But few have actually used them and fewer still would recognize the plants from which they are obtained. An historical association with religious practice accounts for their widespread recognition. Frankincense, or Olibanum is actually a gum-resin obtained from Boswellia carterii and other trees of the genus Boswellia. These trees grow in western India, Egypt, Arabia, and Somaliland. Olibanum constitutes 3-8% volatile oils; 60% resins; 20% gum; 6-8% bassorin and a bitter principle. Traditionally Olibanum was used in offerings by ancient Egyptians and in Jewish Temples as incense. In the New Testament (Matthew 2:1) Frankincense is mentioned as one of the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child.

Olibanum has been suggested as an antidote to hemlock poisoning. Believed to possess slightly astringent and sudorific properties it has been employed as an internal and external remedy for a variety of ailments. From Olibanum (oleo-gum resin) Olibanum oil, Olibanum resinoid (a valuable fixative), and Olibanum absolute can be obtained. Olibanum and these derivatives have a wide application in perfumery, aromatherapy and the fragrance industry.

Myrrh, from the Arabic murr (bitter), is another aromatic gum resin secreted by shrubs and small trees of the genus Commiphora or the incense-tree family Bursereceae, such as C. myrrha or C. abyssinica. The tough, spiny trees grow in Arabia, Ethiopia and Somaliland. Myrrh constitutes 2.5-8% volatile oil; 25-40% resin (myrrhin); 57-61% gum and a bitter principle.

Myrrh was widely used in the ancient world as an ingredient of perfumes and incense. Its antiseptic, astringent, and carminitive properties have been recognized throughout history. There are two main varieties of myrrh, herobol and bisabol. Bisabol, or sweet myrrh, was the variety most often used in ancient formulas for perfumes, incense, and embalming materials. The modern uses of myrrh are chiefly in dentifrices, perfumes, and stimulating tonics as well as a protective agent in pharmaceuticals.

Several varieties of myrrh are available on the market, the preferred being the Somali and Arabian myrrhs. The chief adulterants of myrrh are bdelliums, pebbles and gum-oleo-resins of inferior aromatic quality obtained from other species, notably C. stocksiana, C. roxburghaii, and C. agallocha.

The essential oil distilled from myrrh is a constituent of some heavy perfumes. No doubt these natural ingredients will be exploited for yet unknown properties for application in other fields including aromatherapy.

Common Scents Winter-Spring 1989

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.


By Yugal K. Luthra

Yoga Journal L.L.C.


By Richard Carufel

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